Sorenson: The Plastic Problem

My generation has grown up inundated with both sides of what is known as “the plastic problem.” We’ve been taught to “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and we’ve been surrounded by plastic products from our food packaging to our toothbrushes. By now, recycling single-use plastic has become one of the most basic ways to live sustainably. But what exactly are these single-use plastics, and why is it so important they get recycled? And is recycling really the best way to solve the plastic problem?

What are single-use plastics?

According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), single-use plastics are goods made primarily from fossil fuel-based chemicals (petrochemicals) that are meant to be disposed of right after use — think of cups from a gas station or coffee shop, plastic grocery bags, shampoo and conditioner bottles, makeup packaging or any container that holds food in a supermarket. Single-use plastics are everywhere. The NRDC reports that 300 million tons of plastic is produced each year worldwide; half of that is plastic used for single-use items.

Why are single-use plastics bad for the environment?

When plastic sits in a landfill (either because it wasn’t recycled or hasn’t been recycled yet), the material doesn’t break down, it breaks up, according to the NRDC. The plastic materials are absorbed into our atmosphere as tiny particles called microplastics. Research suggests that exposure to these microplastics can cause hormonal imbalances, infertility, endocrine system problems and even cancer. 

The damage goes beyond humans, too. Single-use plastics in our rivers and oceans affect marine wildlife, as the animals and fish eat the plastic waste polluting their habitats. Plastic production also harms the environment in the form of greenhouse gas emissions as drilling for the materials that make up plastic — oil and gas — results in methane leaking, according to the NRDC. Basically, single-use plastics hurt us, our wildlife and our planet.

Is recycling enough?

We’re often taught that recycling is the best way to solve this plastic problem. But the NRDC reports that 91 percent of all plastic isn’t recycled at all. In order for plastic to be recycled, a company has to buy the recycled plastic to use as a material for their products (for example, water bottles or sleeping bags made from recycled plastic). Without those buyers, the plastic we put in our recycling bins ends up in landfills or the environment.

How can I help?

It’s time to reconsider how we think about reducing plastic pollution. While it’s still important to recycle, we should also heed another ‘r’ in the sustainability mantra: reduce. Rather than buying plastic products with the intent of later recycling them, we should decrease the amount of single-use plastics that we purchase, in turn reducing our overall contribution to the plastic problem. Fortunately, most single-use plastic products can be replaced by reusable products, like reusable water bottles, grocery bags and straws.

It’s also important to check if your local landfill actually recycles (a.k.a., has a buyer for recyclable materials) or if trash and recycling get thrown together in the dump. If it’s the latter, consider contacting your local or state legislature to advocate for more sustainable waste management.

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